Iran removes uranium enrichment limits in aftermath of Soleimani strike

It’s the latest in a series of Iranian announcements, in which it has renounced portions of the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear program.

Iranian workers stand in front of Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km south of Tehran (photo credit: MEHR NEWS AGENCY/MAJID ASGARIPOUR/REUTERS)
Iranian workers stand in front of Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km south of Tehran
Tehran moved closer to the resumption of a nuclear weapons program when it announced on Sunday that it would not place any limits on its uranium enrichment and production.
It’s the latest in a series of Iranian announcements, in which it has renounced portions of the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear program. The uranium decision was reached two-days after the US targeted killing of Tehran's top military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Iran had been expected to announce further rollbacks of the deal, as part of its pressure campaign to sway Europe to pressure the United States to scale back its stiff economic sanctions against Iran.
“Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions .... and based on its technical needs," a government statement cited by Iranian state television said.
Tehran would not respect any limits set down in the 2015 pact on the country's nuclear work, the television station reported. It added that Tehran would reject restrictions on the following: the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges, enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium and or Iran’s nuclear Research and Development activities.
Iran has steadily overstepped the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the accord in 2018 and Washington's reimposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s oil trade.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.
Relations between Tehran and Washington sharply deteriorated after President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the deal. Iran has criticized European powers for failing to salvage the pact by shielding its economy from US sanctions.
Sunday's statement said Tehran can quickly reverse its steps if US sanctions are removed.
"This step is within JCPOA (deal) & all 5 steps are reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations," tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Washington says the “maximum pressure” campaign it started after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement will force Iran to negotiate a more sweeping deal, covering its ballistic missile program and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran says it will not negotiate a new deal.
Tehran has rejected Western assertions that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has already breached many of the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium, its stock of enriched uranium, which models of centrifuge it enriches uranium with and where it enriches uranium.
It has, however, not gone far over the purity allowed – the deal sets a limit of 3.67% and Iran has stayed around 4.5% in recent months, well below the 20% it reached before the deal and the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade.
The deal as a whole was designed to increase the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it wanted one – the main obstacle to producing a nuclear weapon – from around two or three months.
The European Union has scrambled in the last few days to save the JCPOA. Over the weekend, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and invited him to Brussels to discuss ways to restore the Iran deal.
In a statement about the meeting, Borrell’s office said that the deal “continues to be a corner stone of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture and instrumental for the security of the region and the world.”
Borrell’s office added, “The High Representative confirmed his resolve to continue to fully play his role as coordinator and keep the unity of the remaining participants in support of the agreement and its full implementation by all parties.”
Iran had signed the 2015 deal with the six world powers; the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The three European countries, known as the E3, are expected to meet this month to discuss whether to trigger a dispute resolution process to force Tehran to halt its violations of the deal.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News on Sunday that he would be meeting with his French and German colleagues this week on the issue. “Iran cannot continue its nefarious activities… on destabilizing countries in the Middle East. We need to see Iran come back into full compliance with the JCPOA, the nuclear deal,” Raab said.
Late Sunday night the EU, the UK, France and Germany urged Iran not to make good on its uranium threat.
"We have been consistent and clear that our commitment to the nuclear deal depends on full compliance by Iran. We regret this decision by Iran, which calls into question an essential instrument of nuclear non-proliferation," the EU and the E3 said in a joint statement they issued on the matter.
"We urge Iran to reverse this step and to refrain from further measures that undermine the nuclear deal. We are urgently considering next steps under the terms of the JCPoA in close coordination with other JCPoA participants," the EU and the E3 said.
Under the terms of the 2015 deal, if any party believes another is not upholding their commitments they can refer the issue to a joint commission comprising Iran, Russia, China, the three European powers, and the European Union.
They then have 15 days to resolve their differences, but can choose to extend the period by consensus between all the parties.
However, if it is not extended the process escalates and can ultimately lead to the reimposition of sanctions that were in place under previous UN resolutions – known as a “snapback” – unless the UN Security Council decided otherwise. It had been considered unlikely that sanctions would be reimposed.